This series is based on an early short-story by Lorrie Moore called ‘How to Become a Writer’, a wry account of all the seemingly random events, choices and missteps that led a young woman to dedicate herself to a life of putting words on paper. This is a subject I’m fascinated by. Whenever I talk to authors, read their interviews or hear them speak, I’m struck by the enormous variety of routes there are to the same end-point.
There are those who come to writing through study, others are self-taught; some begin early while others are ‘late-bloomers’; some are lucky enough to find mentors, others go it alone; some begin as teachers, editors or in other word-related professions, others come from lives as accountants or sheep shearers. I take tremendous comfort in knowing there’s more than one way to pack a sack; that just because you haven’t done certain things (like gone to university), doesn’t mean you can’t become a writer; we must each find our own path to the writing life.
Meg Mundell is a Melbourne-based author, researcher and journalist. Her writing has appeared in The Guardian, The Age, Sydney Morning Herald, Eureka Street, Meanjin, Dumbo Feather, Best Australian Stories, Australian Book Review, The Monthly, Cordite Poetry Review and elsewhere. Meg’s latest novel, The Trespassers (UQP 2019), is a literary thriller set during a global pandemic. Following a shipload of migrant workers who flee the crumbling UK for a fresh start in Australia, the novel explores the consequences of greed, the experience of exile, and the unlikely ways strangers can become the people we hold dear. The Trespassers has been shortlisted for a 2020 Aurealis award, and optioned for a TV series. Connect with Meg on Facebook and Twitter @MegMundell.
MEG MUNDELL: Like every child of the 1970s, I planned to be an astronaut. Zero gravity, moonboots, flaming meteorites, infinite adventures. But the lyrics of Space Oddity bothered me: Major Tom never made it home. Black holes were real. What if the Daleks got me? I realised I was too neurotic for space travel.
Early signs suggested another fate. As a pre-schooler I hosted picnics for a herd of imaginary friends, serving grass clippings on a miniature tea-set. I named myself “Rowan”, completely at ease with my alter-ego, a bearded man who spent his days paddling a rowboat. At my parents’ work I’d gravitate to a room full of typewriters, hammering out gibberish, loving the satisfying slam of black ink onto white paper.
As kids, we roamed wild. Built tree-forts, took dubious shortcuts, practised witchcraft, invented new worlds and languages. My sister and I yacked into a cassette recorder, voicing made-up characters.
Imagination was like oxygen: it flowed through us, fizzing the blood, sustaining life.
Our hallway bookshelf also reeled me in: National Geographics full of erupting volcanoes, wistful gorillas and irate dinosaurs; foxed paperbacks with silverfish skittering in the margins; Doctor Seuss’ dotty fables. Mum and dad recommended books: I devoured The Chrysalids, my first taste of great sci fi, loved Crime and Punishment, despite the nightmares. Burned through Nineteen Eighty-four, To Kill a Mockingbird, Brave New World. Took Animal Farm literally, bawling my guts out. Couldn’t handle Watership Down.
Our family moved a lot – four schools all up, five houses by the time I turned eight. Being an outsider is useful. Forced to adapt to new surroundings, you become a sharp observer.
I’d always suspected I’d become a writer; more a realisation than an ambition. My parents were encouraging, but pragmatic.
“Writers don’t make any money,” dad pointed out gently. (How right he was.)
Moving to the country, we met a famous New Zealand poet. An intriguing and flamboyant character, Sam Hunt lived in a boatshed with his dog Minstrel. Once, at a dinner party, he took my hand and bestowed a treasured piece of advice: “Never let them steal your spark!”
Nature gave us space to dream. We got stuck up trees, had mud-fights, swam out to sea on horseback. I wrote rhyming doggerel about fading sunsets, darkening hills, herons drifting on silent wings. No-one ever read it.
If this all sounds idyllic, my teens were rocky. Seeing I was struggling, one smart teacher enrolled me in a journalism course: I’d catch a weekly train into the big smoke to absorb vague wisdom from a retired journo with whiskey-soaked cuffs. The same teacher cast me in the school play, Romeo and Juliet, playing a gender-fluid Mercutio (“Rowan” returns!) My death scene was teen drama cranked up to 11, a relief from real-life angst.
At university I filled notebooks with black-scrawled poetry, deservedly unread. This was the last gasp of cheap tertiary education, so I picked subjects purely by interest: psychology and philosophy. Both were useful when I finally got serious about writing.
After graduating I travelled, eventually washing up in Melbourne, where I bit the bullet and enrolled in professional writing and editing at RMIT. One brilliant teacher, Judy Womersley (mum of novelist Chris Womersley), gave invaluable advice on craft.
By pure luck my first two articles got published, which gave me a false but helpful sense of confidence. Student internships at The Age and Lonely Planet led to freelance work. I also volunteered at The Big Issue Australia, allegedly selling advertising (but failing miserably).
Plucking up my courage, I pitched an article to the editor. It ran, and I became a regular contributor.
When the deputy editor job at the magazine came up for grabs, I went for it. Landing that role was the start of a golden period: almost five years of hands-on experience in writing, editing, public speaking, and commissioning stories. An Age editor, James Button, took me under his wing, re-running some of my articles. My workmates were a dream, and I loved talking to the vendors.
When I reluctantly gave up that dream job, I’d never published a word of fiction. It was time to give it a go. Wanting to commit, I enrolled in a creative writing MA. My brilliant supervisor, Marion May Campbell, cheered me on as I wrote my first novel, Black Glass.
I knocked out a short story that won a prize: by chance, when it was read aloud at the awards night, Meanjin editor Ian Britain was listening. He asked if he could publish it.
That story caught the eye of Aviva Tuffield, then an editor at Scribe. She wooed me with a fancy lunch. Aviva went on to publish Black Glass (2013), my short story collection Things I Did for Money(2013), and The Trespassers (UQP, 2019), my recent second novel. She’s been a steady cheerleader and collaborator; as an editor she’s skilled, frank, and cares deeply about the work. My agent, Martin Shaw, is pure gold too: his savvy advice, support and generosity are unmatched.
In this game you need people on your side, and I’ve been lucky.
Writing is precarious, so I’ve done other jobs to support the habit – DJing, comms roles, homelessness policy and advocacy work, freelance editing, research, teaching. All these jobs informed my writing, and writing skills helped me in every role. The Trespassers emerged from a PhD; the scholarship kept me afloat.
Set out like this, it sounds too easy. But writers always leave stuff out: the boring hard slog, the personal setbacks. Suffering for your art is cliched nonsense, but like everyone, I’ve racked up scars. The bad stuff didn’t make me more creative – in fact, some of it slowed me down considerably. But taking a few knocks has probably lent my work some grit and depth it might otherwise have lacked. Life has lent me rich themes to explore: home, place, belonging, exile, illness, isolation, hope, love.
Last year I collaborated with 37 talented writers who’ve experienced homelessness, editing a collection of their work: We Are Here, Stories of Home, Place & Belonging (Affirm Press, 2019).
An anonymous woman in a park taught me a hard lesson. We were watching our toddlers play, and out of nowhere, she said, “If I could choose any job, I’d be a writer.” Caught off guard, I truthfully echoed my dad: “Ah, that’s my job. There’s no money in it.” She frowned. “I meant a successful writer.” I stayed silent. But I avoided her thereafter.
You write because you love it. You tend your imagination, give it space to breathe. You stubbornly persist, but keep your expectations low, because external rewards are few and far between. You metabolise the disappointments, buy new pens, ignore the naysayers. You never let them steal your spark.
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Annabel Smith is the author of US bestseller Whiskey & Charlie (published in Australia as Whisky Charlie Foxtrot), digital interactive novel/app The Ark, and A New Map of the Universe, which was shortlisted for the West Australian Premier’s Book Awards. I am currently working on Monkey See, an epic quest with a sci-fi twist featuring a monkey, an evil priestess and the mother of all tsunamis.